AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Greening your Purchases

 

Copyright 2002 AXIS Performance Advisors. If you use thisin any way, please cite the source.

Greening Your Purchases and Your Wallet

Using Green Purchasing to Make a Difference

by Marsha Willard

Want to implement sustainability in your organization but don’t know where to start?

Wondering how service organizations can improve their environmental impact
when they don’t manufacture anything?

Tired of using those hot masks, gloves and other protective equipment?

Daunted by the prospect of redesigning your products or processes?

Courtesy Stuart Miles, Freedigitalphotos.net

Courtesy Stuart Miles, Freedigitalphotos.net

Regardless of your situation, industry or environmental impact, there is one area all organizations share that is ripe for significant environmental improvement without much fuss or headache. Think purchasing. After all,whether or not you manufacture something, anything that you buy for the operation of your business was manufactured by someone, and eventually,whatever you buy becomes waste destined for the landfill. Cleaning up your purchasing habits holds great promise for improving your organization’s sustainability score card often without major capital investments or disruptive changes.

Green Purchasing Benefits

By “greening” your purchases you can realize many benefits.First and foremost you improve your environmental performance. Until you examine what comes into your organization through purchasing, you have little understanding of what your environmental impact really is. But there are many other benefits to buying green that may surprise you. Lots of organizations are saving real money by switching to green products. The savings are often not immediately apparent because, admittedly, many green products have a higher initial cost, but in the end they are more economical to use because they last longer, require less protective gear to use, and are cheaper to dispose of. And the cost of green products gets cheaper every day as demand for them in the marketplace increases. Another benefit is an increase in employee loyalty and productivity. People like the idea of working for an organization that looks out for their (and the earth’s) well-being and these positive feelings frequently translate into higher productivity and output. But the best part is that focusing on your purchasing practices can provide the perfect “low hanging fruit” for your sustainability efforts. Switching out a product or two is much easier than redesigning your products or processes and often results in immediate paybacks.


What is a green product?

The term “green” has been used and abused to the extent that its application has become suspect. Green has come to mean many things to many people. In fact, there are a number of criteria that come under the banner of “green.” Below is a list of the main characteristics associated with green products. At this point, don’t expect to get a perfect score on all categories; until we have sustainable industries, you’ll have to make trade-offs. Decide which issues are most important to you.

  • Energy efficient
  • Water conserving
  • Reusable
  • Recycled
  • Recyclable
  • Bio-based
  • Bio-degradable
  • Non-toxic
  • Habitat/animal friendly
  • Locally available
  • Minimally packaged

Green Purchasing Principles

When considering how to approach greening your purchasing habits, think in terms of three general principles:

  • Decrease volume
  • Eliminate toxins
  • Simplify delivery.

Decrease Volume

No efficiently run organization intentionally buys more than it needs,but in reality there is still a good deal of waste that contributes to environmental degradation on both ends of the purchasing cycle: it creates unnecessary demand for products which increases consumption of raw materials, and it contributes to the glut of waste going to landfills. One of our clients,a manager of a chemical plant, wisely understood that the money he had to pay to the city for dumping chemicals into the water system was a double waste. Those chemicals were wasted product and belonged in his delivery trucks generating profit, not in the sewer pipe adding to his expenses.Look for opportunities to get more out of what you buy and realize the benefits immediately in terms of lowered operating costs.

If your raw materials are already being used as efficiently as possible,then look next at your energy consumption. Given the skyrocketing costs of energy, it is now cost-effective to replace lights, motors and electronic equipment with newer more energy efficient ones. We interviewed several organizations in the metal casting and chemical industries last year who were not only offsetting increasing energy costs with these measures, but were also learning to recycle cooling water and save money and resources there too. One plant had created a completely closed loop system that neither consumed fresh water nor created any unmanaged runoff from the property.That system saves them thousands of dollars every year and got regulators off their backs to boot.

Once you’ve squeezed all the waste out of your operations consider the
reuse and recyclability of what you buy. Are there opportunities to get
more than one use out of materials you currently buy? One company we talked
to saves $10,000 each year in office supplies since they replaced disposable
coffee cups with reusable ceramic mugs. Are you buying recycled paper? And
are your printers and copiers set to print on both sides of a page?


Consider products that are. . .

  • Energy efficient
  • Water conserving
  • Reusable
  • Recycled
  • Recyclable

Eliminate Toxins

Bill McDonough, the nation’s leading green architect, once compared American office buildings to Nazi extermination chambers in terms of the levels of toxic gases and substances their inhabitants are exposed to. A bit of dramatic hyperbole to be sure, but tinged with a bit of truth. The greatest danger in an office fire, after all, is not from flame, but from the gases emitted from burning carpets, upholstery, paint and office equipment.

We’ve become inured to chemicals in our environment in spite of all the late-breaking evidence that many of the substances we had been (or are still)using have been linked to illness and death. DDT has been banned from use in the US for years, but we still use a multitude of other harmful chemicals like benzene, vinyl chloride and mercury. While lobbyists argue over the”safe levels of exposure” many consumers are wondering about the cumulative effects of being exposed to “safe levels” of chemicals from a variety of sources over a life time of years. There are currently over 80,000 chemicals registered for use in manufacturing in the country,only about 7,000 of which have been tested for their effects on humans andthe environment. One wonders, are the performance benefits of these substances that much better that they are worth the risk? Many organizations are deciding they are not.

Nike, for example, is working with suppliers to develop a shoe that has no vinyl chloride in it and their design teams are trying to create a clothing line so organic you could eat your clothes when you’re done wearing them.(I don’t know about you, but I’d rather throw mine into my compost pile.) Scandic Hotels in Sweden did an audit of all its cleaning supplies and found that they could replace the dozens of different chemical cleaners they were using with one all-purpose, biodegradable product. The unexpected side benefit was the reduction in packaging since the one product could be delivered in refillable, 50 gallon barrels which eliminated all the dozens of smaller plastic bottles and buckets and further simplified storage and inventory management.


Consider products that are. . .

  • Bio-based
  • Bio-degradable
  • Non-toxic
  • Habitat/animal friendly

Simplify Delivery

How a product comes to us is seldom a factor we consider in our purchasing decisions. We don’t realize how far the things we buy travel to get to us.Not to mention the number of miles logged by all the resources and parts in their journey from nature to the manufacturers shipping docks. It’s not uncommon for our country’s natural resources to go to China for processing then to Korea for manufacturing before coming back to the US as a finished product.

David Yudkin, owner of Hot Lips Pizza in Portland, sees three benefits of buying locally: First, of course, there is the diminished impact on the environment from preventing excessive use of fossil fuels. Second, there is the benefit to the local economy keeping money circulating within a community and sustaining local businesses. Third, David maintains, there is also a benefit to our national security pointing out that if our elaborate food and product distribution system were disrupted, there would be economic chaos. It turns out that there is only 48 hours’ worth of food in Manhattan at any given moment. A sobering thought in light of September 11.

In addition to where a product comes from, think about how your purchases are packaged for delivery. I figure I pay about $1.00/week to “rent”each of the cereal boxes I bring home from the market. While they do make it slightly easier to transport the cereal from the market to my house (as opposed to taking my own bags and bagging bulk cereal), is that convenience really worth $150 a year to me? I’m especially befuddled by shoe packaging.Buy a pair of shoes and it will frequently be wrapped in paper, put in a box and then put in a bag for me to carry home. Are shoes that fragile?I’ve read that in Europe, where consumers have become very conscious of packaging and the cost of disposing of it, shoppers frequently just take the shoes and leave retailer to manage the unnecessary boxes and bags. Now think about all that your organization buys that comes shrink-wrapped, boxed and palleted and then look in your company’s dumpster and see how much of what you just bought gets immediately thrown away.

Some organizations are getting smart about this waste and finding a use for it. During the last years of its operation, the Epson printer plant in Beaverton achieved zero waste to landfill. They achieved this through reuse of many materials and recycling other materials (sometimes at significant cost savings). They partnered with a local company, for example, to pickup the Styrofoam packaging material they use which this other company turns into finish trim and moldings for use in home and commercial construction.Another manufacturer we visited cleverly used the boxes their supplies came in to package and ship their own products; no waste and virtually no packaging expense.


Consider products that are. . .

  • Locally available
  • Minimally packaged

If all our collective efforts are successful and we achieve Oregon’s goal of becoming sustainable by 2025, then eventually we won’t have to think about our purchasing habits. We will be able to go about our business, meet our basic human needs, run our equipment, keep ourselves clean, and pursue a quality life without having to worry about the impact of our consumption.Until manufacturers can universally provide us with completely sustainable products, we will need to be vigilant about our habits. Hopefully the three strategies we’ve shared here will help you minimize your current impact and realize some personal benefits as well.


If you want more information about how to “green up” your purchasing practices, please check out our two related SustainabilitySeries booklets:

Greening Your Supply Chain –What you buy can have an important influence on your environmental impacts.So many organizations are writing environmental criteria into their contracts,surveying suppliers, setting up coalitions, even collaborating with non-governmental organizations. But how do you know what approach will be best for you? This booklet helps you think through your strategy. You’ll pick a product, processor supplier relationship and then select the best strategy for influencing them.

Choosing Greener Products— While not every organization may be in the business churning natural resources into products, every organization consumes those products in the operation of its business. Look no farther than your purchasing department to understand your link to consumption and waste production. Purchasing patterns not only have significant environmental implications, but they also impact an organization’s financial bottom line, its relationships with its vendors and its exposure to public opinion. Purchasing is the one common practice that all organizations share that has a significant impact on sustainability.Choosing Greener Products will walk you through the process of cleaning up your purchasing habits while finding savings and efficiency gains along the way. Written by Marsha Willard, CEO of AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc.and Chris James researcher and consultant for non-profit organizations,governmental agencies and Fortune 500 companies on green products and services and founder and former president of FatEarth, Inc.

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